Independence Day

I was once looking to hire someone for my window cleaning business. One candidate, Carlos, had been referred to me by a friend. Carlos was intriguing to me. He was handsome, intelligent, articulate, and well dressed, and yet at 21 he wasn’t in college and was applying for a low-paying manual labor job. He rented a room in an ugly house in an ugly neighborhood and had a part-time job at Burger King. I was ready to hire him until I discovered that his only transportation was an old bike. Big problem. He lived on the other side of town from me and I needed him to drive to meeting points where I would pick him up every morning. When I called him the second time to tell him I just couldn’t hire him unless he could get some wheels, he asked in which parts of town I would want him to meet me. One was 10 miles from his house and the other was 15. No problem, Carlos said.

“Um, Carlos, I don’t think you realize how far it is from your house to that intersection and how cold and miserable that bike ride will be in the dead of winter at 6:30 am.”

“Yes I do. I pass that intersection and ride an additional mile almost every day for my Burger King shifts.”

“You work at that Burger King?!?” (I had assumed he worked at one that was located a mile or so away from him.)

“Ya, that’s no problem.”

Carlos was making this long ride sometimes for a mere 3-hour shift. Crazy. I hired him. How could I not hire a guy with that incredible attitude and hustle? Although he was now a U.S. citizen, Carlos grew up in a dangerous part of Mexico beleaguered by drug wars. At a young age he experienced an awful family tragedy, became involved in the drug trade, got caught, punched the Border Patrol officer who caught him, got caught by the officer’s partner, got punched a few times himself, and ended up in prison for a number of years. In the slammer he met a tall, wealthy German fellow doing time for a complicated immigration issue. The German happened to be a Mormon. Being intellectually curious, Carlos asked a lot of questions and ended up converting to the LDS Church. Upon his release, he fought a steep uphill battle to turn his life around. Way around.

He started working for me.  He got all his clothes at Savers and Goodwill and wore button up dress shirts and pants to wash windows. Eventually he earned enough money cleaning glass to buy a motor to put on a different bicycle (he was an intuitive mechanic), giving him 40 glorious miles per hour.  Then he crashed it doing nearly that speed and was back to the old bike. He had all types of challenges; some self-inflicted, others not. Although as I think about it, given his background, I’m not sure to what extent any challenge was truly self-inflicted.  Regardless, you have never met a happier, more smiley, optimistic person in your life. He worked hard in my business. He was teachable, innovative, great with people, and very industrious. Carlos now runs a window cleaning business on his own and is engaged to a good woman.

The other day, as I became emotional watching the WWII vets being driven by in a 4th of July parade, I thought about the nature of America – what America at its core really means to me.

Does it mean a huge, beautiful, diverse physical landscape? Does it mean religious freedom, civil liberty, and innovation of every sort? Does it mean homegrown democracy? Does it mean baseball and hamburgers and water parks?

For people who pay attention to history it’s easy to think of a place or movement in terms of the ethnic and cultural makeup behind it. China wouldn’t be China without “Chinese” people and “Chinese” culture. Without those things, China is merely an area within various points of longitude and latitude on a map. It would be a completely different place if ruled by bagpipe-playing Scots, or Namibians clad in traditional African garb. In the same way, people might think that America is distinctly American because of our unique American proportion of this many Whites, this many Blacks, this many Latinos, this many Asians, etc, combined with a helping of our unique social institutions.

But as I try to define what America truly means to me, I realize that ethnicity and culture have absolutely nothing to do with it.  Rather, America means Carlos. It means the chance, the total freedom, to improve your life and the lives of others. It means having the gumption to bike 20 miles a day for a 3-hour shift at a minimum wage job in order to rewrite your lot in the world. It means these beautiful, arthritic WWII soldiers slowly waving their hands; men who saved all humanity from an epic scourge of evil, accepting the fact that they could be shot down or blown up in the process. America means goodness and hope and virtue. And if in 100 years, the spot of land we call America is inhabited entirely by Mongolians who speak Klingon and play Quidditch—but they’ve adopted the birthright that pushed Carlos to dream and persevere and WWII vets to storm the beaches of Normandy—then that’s just fine with me. God bless them.

God bless America.

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11 Responses to Independence Day

  1. Davis says:

    That’s a great story about Carlos. And those WWII always remind me of myself.

  2. Gina says:

    Well written.

  3. Candice says:

    Mega-Dittos Chris.

    That inspired me to actually work today instead of reading blogs.

  4. Ryan says:

    Candice, you took exactly the wrong lesson from this.

    Carlos sounds awesome. What a great story. Compare to this piece in the NYT, which has got a bunch of attention this week. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/07/business/economy/07generation.html?_r=1

    The basic story is that this 24 year old kid graduated from Cornell and has had a hard time finding the right job, all the while remaining at his parents’ house, on his parents’ dole, and having passed up a 40k p/yr job because it didn’t sound good enough. The comments after the article basically keelhaul the guy. I feel for him, but I agree with the gist of the comments too- if we had more Carloses and fewer entitled Millennials, we’d deserve the Fourth of July more. (Which is not to say I’m volunteering to be Carlos).

  5. Landon says:

    I hope we play Quidditch before then. It’s always been my favorite part of the series. I think I would be pretty good at it.

  6. Davis says:

    I forgot it was Friday, and then noticed that I was weeping.

  7. Wade says:

    I’m glad I didn’t just skip over your post today Chris ;). Your stories managed to turn window washing into the 2nd most interesting career on the planet. This being the first, of course:

  8. Ben Pratt says:

    Chris, I saw those vets in the parade and the people around me gave them a round of applause. I was part of it, but later it seemed so very little compared to what those fellows did just because it needed done. Thanks for your description of their heroics.

    The story of Carlos reminds me of a kid I once worked with. I’ve thought about him over the years, and I’ve often hoped that he’s doing what Carlos is doing.

  9. Charlotte says:

    This was a great post! You’ve nailed my thought on what America really is all about.

  10. Braden says:

    Kook, that was excellent, excellent! The writing and the message were perfect. Well done. Hey, if you want to keep writing weepy posts, though, why don’t you come work at bradenbell.com?

  11. How did I miss this one? LOVE it! Here’s to Carlos.

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